Thomas Wictor

Who really ordered US special forces into Syria?

Who really ordered US special forces into Syria?

Last night the US Army Combat Applications Group (CAG)—known popularly as the Delta Force—killed Islamic State emir Abu Sayyaf in eastern Syria. The special forces carried out what’s called an air assault: They were flown in by Black Hawk helicopters and V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft. This was an incredibly risky operation. The goal was to capture Sayyaf, who was in charge of the Islamic State’s oil and gas exports. In the ensuing firefight, twelve terrorists including Sayyaf were killed, and the American aircraft were hit with bullets. We’ve been told that President Obama personally authorized this mission, but I find that impossible to believe.

President Obama is easily the most risk-averse Commander-in-Chief we’ve ever had. Stories of his indecisiveness are legion. The attacks on the US mission and CIA annex in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, lasted over six hours. More than 150 terrorists armed with gun trucks, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and heavy machine guns killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, State Department information management officer Sean Smith, and security contractors Glen Doherty and Tyrone S. Woods.

Here is what we were told about the slow American response.

Asked why the U.S. military did not do more, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Thursday the first rule in such a situation is not to deploy troops into harm’s way unless there is a clear picture of what is happening.

“And as result of not having that kind of information, the commander who is on the ground … felt very strongly that we could not put forces at risk in that situation,” Panetta said.

That’s not true. The US armed forces have six regional unified combatant commands (UCCs) and three functional UCCs.


Each of the seven US Army Special Forces Groups has a Combatant Commanders In-extremis Force (CIF) Company, which is assigned to a regional UCC. For example, the 10th Special Forces Group has European Command (EUCOM) as its area of responsibility (AOR). It’s CIF is named “C110.”

A CIF is specifically tasked with going into a situation without knowing what’s happening. All that matters is getting heavily armed rescuers there as quickly as possible. The CIFs have their weapons and equipment loaded on aircraft, ready to go, and the forty men are on call. On September 11, 2012, C110 was in Croatia. Although reports say that it was three and a half hours away, that depends on the aircraft it used. If they had a C-17 Globemaster III, as I’ve been told, the CIF was about two hours away.

But it wasn’t sent. CIF C110 went to Sicily instead of directly to Libya. No explanation has been given for this decision.

According to Richard Miniter, President Obama canceled the 2011 bin Laden mission three times before he finally approved it. The president took a month to make up his mind whether or not to approve a mission to rescue James Foley and other western hostages. Foley was eventually beheaded.

A mission to rescue hostage Luke Somers was also delayed.

Although Somers was located twice, he was fatally wounded by his captors on December 6, 2014, during the second rescue attempt.

If the president found it incredibly difficult to authorize missions to rescue Americans, how likely is it that he’d approve of a CAG operation into Syria to capture or kill an unknown Islamic State emir? Imagine if the helicopters or V-22 Ospreys were shot down.

Showing off an Osprey

Even worse, what if women and children were killed?

A Defense Department official said Islamic State fighters who defended their building and Abu Sayyaf tried to use women and children as shields, but that the Delta Force commandos “used very precise fire” and “separated the women and children.” The official said the operation involved close “hand-to-hand fighting.” (The accounts of the raid came from military and government officials and could not be immediately verified through independent sources.)

The American forces eventually entered the building where they found Abu Sayyaf and his wife, known as Umm Sayyaf, in a room together. His spouse was captured and later moved to a military facility in Iraq, officials said.

I simply don’t believe that President Obama would sign off on this mission, but would it be possible for someone else to have ordered it?

Yes. I think so.

For one thing, the commander of Central Command (CENTCOM), General Lloyd Austin III, has been granted an amazing amount of leeway when it comes to military operations.

Army Gen. Lloyd Austin III, the commander of U.S. Central Command, made the call Monday morning to order airstrikes against jihadi targets in Syria and has the authority to order more, according to the Pentagon.

Austin, whose office is located on the top floor of the four-story Centcom headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, is in charge of U.S. military operations in Syria, Iraq and 18 other nations in the Middle East and Southwest Asia.

Though it was President Barack Obama’s ultimate decision to call for the airstrikes in Syria, which he authorized the day after visiting Centcom last Wednesday, Austin ordered the strikes that hit 14 Islamic State targets and eight Khorasan Group targets in Syria, the Pentagon said.

Combatant commanders are supposed to receive their orders from the Pentagon. The Secretary of Defense—currently Ashton Carter—is the one who should determine the location, start, intensity, and duration of an air campaign. If Operation Inherent Resolve is a resounding failure, guess who’ll be blamed?


Since I hadn’t heard of an American Commander-in-Chief ceding so much to his generals, I did a little more research and discovered that combatant commanders have been making major decisions on their own for a long time.

Obama Gives Commanders Wide Berth for Secret Warfare

Last summer, the White House authorized a massive expansion of clandestine military and intelligence operations worldwide, sanctioning activities in more than a dozen countries and giving the military’s combatant commanders significant new authority to conduct unconventional warfare…

The authorization to write the orders allow combatant commanders to put together task forces for almost any purpose, and draw from almost any existing military unit. JUWTFs [Joint Unconventional Warfare Task Forces] are not classified and are in regular use. But until last summer, they tended to be formed for temporary and limited purposes. Even during the Bush administration, the military did not insert American personnel into Iran, which is what the [code-named] Avocado execute order now permits.

Not surprisingly, the larger counter-terrorism task forces tend to be full of operators from the clandestine Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), as well as contractors from companies like L3. But JSOC is not the executive authority for these missions, as one might suspect. Rather, the commanders, like CENTCOM’s Petraeus, have direct authority.

I’ve thought since the beginning that this had to be the case. President Obama didn’t want the responsibility of making the real “gutsy calls,” so he’s letting others do it. Sometimes he’s forced to be Commander-in-Chief against his will, such as during rescue operations or the bin Laden mission. In the latter case, it involved an air assault into a nation armed with nuclear weapons.

No wonder the president looked like this as he watched the raid unfold.


Now that I know I was right—the president isn’t making crucial military decisions himself—I feel sick. The entire system has been subverted. If the president found his job too stressful, he should’ve resigned.

How did we come to this?

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